It wasn’t the end to 2016 that the Charlotte Hornets had hoped for, and it hasn’t been a great start to 2017, either.
In now their third game of the current five-game road trip, the Hornets face another tough challenge tonight against arguably the hottest team in the NBA, the Houston Rockets.
Losing three of four to start the new year, the Hornets’ .500 record is quickly slipping at 20-18. No, it’s not time to hit the panic button yet, by any means, but the recent stretch has seen a lot of faults and inconsistency.
Last year, the Hornets went 6-11 in the month of January, and could suffer in the Eastern Conference standings if it’s a recurrence this time around.
Tonight, they are faced with the nearly impossible task of ‘controlling’ James Harden and the scorching offense he leads. Winners of eight in a row, the Rockets have been undeniable scoring 121.4 points on average during that stretch, and have improved their record to 30-9 on the season. In many regards, Harden has been the MVP front-runner over the first two months of the season, and the recent stretch bolsters that claim.
Last time out against the Toronto Raptors, Harden solidified his 10th triple-double of the season with a 40-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist night in a 129-122 win. Also impressive though, was Montrezl Harrell who finished with 28 points. Since losing starting big-man Clint Capela, Harrell has stepped in nicely averaging just a hair under 15 points per game compared to his 9.5 average on the season.
Although Eric Gordon is listed as questionable for tonight due to a sprained left big toe, he and Ryan Anderson have been great additions from the New Orleans Pelicans. They’ve fit right in to a team that already enjoyed hoisting a bunch of 3-pointers. In fact, this season, the Rockets rank first in the NBA in 3-point field goal makes per game at 14.9, which is two more makes, on average, than the second ranked Cleveland Cavaliers. It could be a major problem for the Hornets who give up the third most makes behind the arc at 10.6 per game.
It doesn’t help that Nicolas Batum will miss his second straight game with a hyperextended right knee, leaving a hole in the lineup in more ways than one. As for other Hornets injuries, after returning from a concussion, Cody Zeller is listed as questionable tonight because of an illness.
Most likely, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be matched up on James Harden all night with Batum out, forcing the smaller wings to guard Trevor Ariza and the other small forwards. Also, if Zeller misses tonight’s game, Steve Clifford will have his his hands full responding to the alternating big men, Nene Hilario and Harrell.
If there is a positive in the matchup for the Hornets, it revolves around turnovers. The Rockets’ fast-paced offense results in 15.7 turnovers per game, which is the fourth most in the league. On the other side, the Hornets turn it over the second least among all NBA teams with just 11.9 per game. Forcing turnovers allows the Hornets to get out in transition, and limiting them prevents the Rockets from doing what they do so effectively.
Other key epoints include playing a complete game and limiting the Rockets to one chance each possession. The Hornets lead the league in defensive rebounding, and can’t afford to give up additional opportunities to a team that ranks fifth in the NBA in second chance points. As for playing a complete game, the Hornets have been notorious for their wild third quarters and erratic play in the other three frames. In order to beat a hot team such as the Hornets, a full 48 minutes is necessary.
It won’t be easy as a win over the Rockets has been rare for the Hornets over the past five years. 1-9 in the last 10 meetings, the Hornets got the lone win last March at home.
After tonight’s game, the Hornets travel to Philadelphia to take on the 76ers on Friday and then visit the Boston Celtics the following Monday to complete the five-game road trip.